or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk


Reference Question of the Week – 8/10/14

   August 16th, 2014 Brian Herzog

Rolling Stone on microfilmA patron came into our branch library and told the staff that she participated in a "Reading Olympics" program at the library as a kid, in 1980 "or sometime when she was in school," and wanted to know if there a photo in the newspaper. She thought she remembered seeing one, of a group shot of all the participants. Our branch doesn't have much for local history resources, so the question was transferred to me at the main library.

We do have newspaper microfilm from those years, but I'm reluctant to start searches like that with such a vague date reference. However, the library has done a great job for decades of keeping scrapbooks of all library-related news clippings, flyers, newsletters, and things like that, so that was where I started. I flipped through the scrapbooks from 1979-1981, but sadly didn't see anything related to a Reading Olympics. Lots of other stuff though, which made me think that the Reading Olympics didn't happen at the public library.

It's possible it was a school or school library program, or with the Scouts or some other group, just not the public library. I called the branch back and gave them the news, and also that if the patron wanted to come in to use the newspaper microfilm I can help get them started.

I felt bad about not finding what they were looking for, but, as often happens with research, I found other interesting things. One was the Winter 1980 library newsletter, with an article about buying a microfilm machine and microfilm collection.

This caught my eye because we're buying a new microfilm machine this year (the second since this one in 1980, but the first I've purchased). Back then, the machine and collection cost $5000; this year the ScanPro 2000 we're getting is about $7000. Also back then, printing cost $0.10; our current price is $0.15. Inflation!

Other interesting articles just on the cover of the newsletter are:

  • the library is advertising for customers for its own print shop
  • the library serves as a carpool center

Two great ways to be a community center. Nice job, 1980 Chelmsford Library!



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Reference Question of the Week – 1/6/13

   January 12th, 2013 Brian Herzog

The Lowell SunThis reference question happened before Christmas. As I came into work one afternoon to start my evening shift, the staff person I was replacing had to pass off to me a patron she had already been helping for a little while.

The patron was looking for an article she had read in the Lowell Sun (a local daily newspaper) within the last couple months - she couldn't remember the title, author, or date, but knew it had something to do with with how changes in Social Security will affect the pension the spouse of a state employee will receive.

The patron had called the newspaper and they told her they didn't know exactly which article it was, but it probably would have run on a Thursday.

When I came in, the patron was going through a stack of newspapers, looking at Thursdays issue-by-issue, working backwards. My coworker had already spent time searching our Lowell Sun subscription database, but neither approach was succeeding.

After my coworker left, and since the patron was still using the physical newspapers, I thought I'd try again with the database. Different people use different search techniques, so perhaps (and hopefully) I'd find something my coworker missed.

I started with just keyword searches for combinations of "social security" "pension" "spouse" and a few other things, limited to the last 3 months, but none of the results really seemed to fit the patron's description. I opened it up to six months, then removed the date limiter all together, and still nothing. Then I stopped combining keywords, and just searched the individually - still nothing.

I knew the database wouldn't contain AP stories or articles from other sources, but the patron was pretty sure it was a regular column of a local writer. She knew what he looked like too (from his headshot running along side each column), so she was hoping that she could at least find one of his columns and then we could get his name.

Since I wasn't having any luck in the subscription database, I thought I'd try their website's searchable archive - it's not full-text, but an index of authors and titles could still be helpful. However, the only thing coming up were the same articles I'd already seen - and the website said "Generally, the material is current 24 hours after publication," so it should have been up-to-date with no embargo.

Just then, the patron came over very excited - she recognized the columnist's picture in one of the papers. It wasn't the right article, but at least we now had his name: John Spoto.

While she was looking over my shoulder, I searched the database for author/byline=John Spoto, and oddly, only two matches came up. Odd because there were so few for a regular columnist, and because they were both dated July 2012. I did a keyword search instead of an author search for his name, and then got 55 results - much better (however, slightly annoying).

But we still had a catch, because the most recent was dated September 9th. The patron was sure the article she read was more recent than that, but no matter what I tried I couldn't find any other articles by this person in the database (nor on the website, which indicated it was current).

However, when I started reading the dates - September 9th, August 26th, July 29 - I noticed that most were Sundays. Because the paper had told her this column ran on Thursdays, she had only been looking at Thursday's papers. So, the patron went back to check the Sunday editions, and hit the jackpot on Dec 2nd.

The column was titled "Public pensions do affect Social Security benefits," by John Stopo. We both thought it was odd this didn't come up in the database, so I tried searching by the title - guess what? No luck.

It looks like the database hasn't been updated in awhile, at least for this writer's columns.

Regardless, I helped the patron photocopy the column*, and while we were doing that she talked about the importance of perseverance and how you can do great things by taking only little steps at a time. It seemed to me that, in this case, the work the patron put into finding the article made it that much better when she did find it - if she came in and found it right away, it would have been a whole different experience.

Not that things need to be difficult, but it's nice to appreciate the results of extra effort.

 


*Helping patrons photocopy odd-sized newspaper articles, that don't readily fit on legal-size paper, is a reference question unto itself.



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Reference Question of the Week – 7/3/11

   July 8th, 2011 Brian Herzog

Abortion protest signs: pro-life and pro-choice side-by-sideThis question was just kind of strange from start to finish.

A patron comes up to the desk with two articles photo copied from the Boston Globe - one from June 10, 2011, titled Americans conflicted on abortion issue, survey shows, and the other from July 2, 2011, titled Judge puts Kansas abortion law on hold. She slides them over to me and says,

Now this first article I know is from June 10th, but I don't know the page number. In this second article, this judge is mentioned [US District Judge Carlos Murguia] - can you tell me what President appointed him?

Okay, fair enough. For the page number question, I show her where we keep our newspaper back issues, and tell her than while she looks through them for June 10th, I'll look online about the judge. She's happy to be involved, so I walk back over to the desk (which is literally four feet away).

I know it won't take her long to find the newspaper, so I do the quickest search I can think of - just search for US District Judge Carlos Murguia, scan for the Wikipedia article (which are reliably in the top few results), scroll to the Sources section at the bottom, and click through to the Federal Judicial Center's Biographical Directory of Federal Judges entry for Judge Murguia* - which tells me he was appointed by Bill Clinton.

Just then the patron walks up and says she can't find the June 10th paper - she can find back to the 12th, but that's it. Usually, we keep old papers for a month, but really how far back we keep depends on how much space we have on the shelf, and I think the person who manages our newspaper archive just ran out of room and had to get rid of the 10th.

I ask her for the article so I can try looking it up in our Boston Globe database - but then notice the byline says it's an AP article, which aren't included in the database. I apologize for not being able to get this for her, she says she understands. A line of patrons has formed by this time, so she lets this question go and goes back to her computer.

I get busy after that, helping patrons in-person and on the phone. At one point while I'm helping a phone patron, I notice this newspaper patron walk up to the desk speaking over-loudly on a cell phone - she stands across the desk from me talking for a minute, then wanders away. I never would have guessed this patron would have a cell phone at all, let alone whip it out and use it in the library, but there you go. I continue helping people.

A little while later, when there is a break in my activity, this newspaper patron comes back up to the desk. She said she had called the Nashua Library (about 20 minutes away from us, across the border into New Hampshire), and they said they do have the June 10th paper. She slides me a piece of paper with Nashua's phone number on it, and three names - Katie, Katy, Kathy. She asks if I can call them and have them email me a copy of the newspaper, and the librarian's name is something like one of those she wrote down, but she can't remember.

I ask her if it's okay if I just ask them what page the article is on and they tell me over the phone, but she says no - she needs "documentation."

So I call Nashua, and, guessing, ask for Katie at the Reference Desk. I get transferred and when I say who I am, Katie laughs and said she had an idea why I was calling (knowing this patron, Katie probably got an earful on the phone).

Anyway, any librarian knows that photocopying a newspaper article can be difficult, not to mention trying to include the page number on the photocopy - not to mention trying to email/fax it when you're done. So Katie suggests she email me confirmation that she found the article and what page it is on, essentially providing a testament for the "documentation." This sounds good to me, and if the patron still needed more, then we could figure out a way to actually get a copy of the paper.

A few minutes later, the following email arrives:

I located the Associated Press article "Americans conflicted on abortion issue, survey shows" in the print edition of The Boston Globe for Friday, June 10, 2011 (Volume 279, Number 161). The article appears on the right hand side of page A2, and does not continue to any other page. This is the News section of the paper, and the article falls under the subsection heading "The Nation."

I print it and give it to the patron, and she is pleased and thanks me.

I can hardly take credit however - I had already given up on the question, since we didn't have that resource in the library, and there were too many other patrons waiting for me to try to track it down outside the library right then. I think it's kind of funny the patron contacted another library on her own, and I'm very grateful to Katie for being willing to provide an answer with the proper documentation.

This might be the single biggest thing I love about being a librarian - cooperation. Being able to have a short phone call with a colleague (a colleague, yes, but a complete stranger, too) in a different state, and within minutes have the exact right answer delivered to me - it really is just amazing. Sorry LinkedIn, library service desks are the single best professional network around.

 


*The Sources, References, and External Links sections alone make the entire Wikipedia project worthwhile. Even if the articles themselves didn't exist, simply compiling authoritative web links on just about any subject is the kind of topic-based bibliography directory librarians have always loved about the internet.



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Reference Question of the Week – 5/22/11

   May 28th, 2011 Brian Herzog

I was all proud of myself for ultimately finding the answer to this question - but afterward I discovered the answer wasn't nearly as hard to find as I had thought. Oh well.

A patron came up to the desk and pushed this newspaper clipping towards me (click to read it):

WSJ clipping

As she did this she said,

This from the Wall Street Journal page A12, but I can't remember date. I looked through all the issues you have, but it's not in any of them. You need to find out when is this article from because I want to read the rest of it. I'll leave this with you and go back to my computer, so just bring it over when you find it.

We keep the last three months of the WSJ in print, and since she said she looked at every issue, that ruled out anything between now and March 2011. I asked her if she had any idea when she photocopied it, and she said she thought it was in March, but it could have been a little earlier, so I decided to focus my search between January and March 2011.

Unfortunately, we don't have subscription database access to the WSJ, so I went to their website to see what kind of archive search they had. Their search did allow limiting to a date range, so I combined that with what seemed like the most important keywords from the article (Victim Funds, Columbine High School, Virginia Tech, Von Mour, etc) - and came up empty.

I usually don't have much luck with newspaper searches, so I quickly switched to Google - sometimes their cached results contain a better record of what has been published (or at least a temporary view through paywalls), and I'd be happy if I could even just get a citation. I searched on various iterations of those same keywords, and included the "site:wsj.com" limiter, but still had no luck.

I thought I was on the right track, but just using the wrong keywords, so I reread what I could of the article, looking for something unique. Towards the top of the page is a photo caption listing peoples' names, so I tried another Google search for "victim funds" "dan smolnik" site:wsj.com and got exactly one hit.

Clicking into the article and skimming it, I saw the same "Victim Funds" table, and also did a Ctrl+F for the phrase "As many as 4.62 points," which appears at the bottom of the clipping, so I knew this was the right article.

So yay, that made me happy. I scrolled back up to the top to find the date: March 28, 2010. Wow, the patron had the right month, but the wrong year.

I went over to the patron's computer and pulled up the article for her. At first she was skeptical because of the year, but when I showed her the table and the same paragraphs from the clipping, she agreed it must be the same one.

After getting back to the desk, I felt pretty proud of myself for being able to unearth this based on such a fragment of a clipping - no title, no author, no date. But I was curious if the search on the WSJ website would have found the man's name. I tried it, and it didn't - until I remembered to expand the time frame to 2 years, and then it did.

I also found success searching on the phrases "As many as 4.62 points" and "token of support from the community" which were in the article. At this point, my pride dissipated, as I realized I had just picked all the wrong keywords from the start - making what should have been a 1-2 minute search unnecessarily long. Luckily it didn't matter in this case, as the patron was still around - but next time I'll just start with random phrases as keywords and see how it works.



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The Resurrection of Newspaper Obituaries

   September 7th, 2010 Brian Herzog

Yahoo PipesLast week I started talking about newspaper obituaries. Today's post details how we're improving access to the obituaries we do have in our newspaper microfilm records, using an online index created with Yahoo Pipes.

Our microfilm records of the local papers go back to 1940. But microfilm is primarily an archival format, rather than an accessible format, so it can be cumbersome to use. Our biggest impediment was that we didn't know what was there - when a patron contacted the Reference Desk asking for someone's obituary, it was very time-consuming for us to search the microfilm for an obituary, which may or may not have even appeared in the paper - we wouldn't even know until we checked.

So we created an online searchable index to the newspaper's obituaries - not the text of the obituaries, just a name/date/page index. Patrons and staff can use this to know whether someone's obituary appeared in our newspaper, instead of having to check the microfilm every time.

Here's how we did it: first, for about the past 10 months, volunteers have been going through every microfilm reel we have, page by page, and building an Excel spreadsheet with the following information:

Newspaper Year Month Day Page FirstName MiddleInitial LastName Maiden-Jr-Sr

The first column is necessary because we have records for both the Chelmsford Newsweekly (1940-1993) and the Chelmsford Independent (1986-present). The middle columns are reference and retrieval information. In the last column, we included extra information, like maiden name, whether a person was a "Jr." or "Sr." etc., and anything else that was random and didn't fit into another column.

The spreadsheet itself is useful, but I wanted to put this online so anyone could search it. The tool I chose was Yahoo Pipes, which has both pros and cons:

Pros:

  • It's easy to play with and learn (like most Web 2.0 tools), but is also very powerful so we can grow into it
  • It can use a csv file for the data, which is easy to create with Excel
  • Beyond a simple search, it also provides fancy features like RSS feeds and tie-ins with other social media tools
  • Using Yahoo Pipes is covered in Chapter 7 of Library Mashups, written by Nicole Engard
  • The data is easy to update as the file continues to grow
  • It worked

Cons:

  • Searching a database is not what Pipes is intended to do, so it's probably not the best tool out there (I wanted to use DabbleDB, but they're in transition right now)
  • The csv file must be ftp'ed to the webserver, which will be increasingly problematic - right now the file is 17,000+ lines and over 1MB. It will only get bigger, and the entire thing needs to be uploaded each time it's updated
  • Pipes has funny rules that you don't know about until something breaks. For instance, field names must be single words (hence "FirstName" and "Maiden-Jr-Sr"), you can't use certain characters in the data (like /), the search doesn't let you combine keywords (so far - I'm sure there must be some kind of fancy loop setup that will allow it, but right now people can only search either by first name or last name or year)
  • There isn't an easy way to embed the search box back into our website (there are Badge options, but only for search output) - you have to use the Pipe interface to search
  • There doesn't seem to be a wildcard for search
  • The results can't not link to something - I wanted the names and dates just to be displayed, but the way Pipes works requires the results to link to something

The last point was initially a pain, but it forced me to be creative, and I think the solution is actually more helpful for patrons than what I originally wanted. Now, when a patron finds the obituary listing they'd like to read, they click the link, and it automatically fills the obituary information into an email contact form on our website. That request gets sent to Reference staff, who then have an easy time of retrieving the obituary from the microfilm. Unfortunately, our microfilm machine isn't connected to a computer, so we'll just print and mail or fax the obituary to the patron. When possible we'll type them in and email them, and of course that will go into the searchable database too.

To make the connection from the Pipes listing to our email form, I had to use some javascript (which introduced another glitch: javascript makes names like O'Conner problematic, because it stops at the ', but I'll worry about this later).

Here's what the whole Pipe's source code looks like:
Yahoo Pipe for Obituary Search

Here's what it does:

  • The "Fetch CSV" module is the path to the csv file on our webserver
  • The module to the right of that controls what the patron search input box looks like. The "Label" field is "Enter EITHER a First Name, Last Name OR Year:" and you can see where that displays on the Pipe page
  • Both of those modules feed into "Filter" module - this one takes what the patron enters into the search box and filters the data from the csv file to create a subset of just matching records. Whatever the patron enters gets searched for in all the fields listed in the "Filter" module
  • The next module is "Rename" and I'm not sure I'm using it properly - I needed to create two new fields, so I'm just taking two existing fields, copying them, and renaming them so I can work with them later. The fields that got copied still exist untouched
  • Next is the "Regex" module, which is the most complicated and powerful, and I use it to create what the patron sees for the search results. The "Title" field is one I created, and here I'm replacing the contents from when I copied it to display what the patron will see on the screen - the code for it is "${FirstName} ${MiddleInitial} ${LastName} ${Maiden-Jr-Sr} - ${Newspaper}, ${Month} ${Day}, ${Year}, Page ${Page} ${Obituary}" which also includes punctuation formatting. So, for example, the result looks like this:

    Katherine M. Polley - Chelmsford Newsweekly, December 31, 1940, Page 7

    Because this field has to be a link, I also had to define what it links to, which is what I'm doing in the "Link" field. The value for that field is being written as

    http://www.chelmsfordlibrary.org/reference/ask_us-obits.html?obit=${FirstName}+${MiddleInitial}+${LastName},+${Newspaper},+${Month}+${Day},+${Year},+Page+${Page}

    which carries the data over to the library's website and some javascript pulls the data from the url and puts it in an email form. The patron can fill in their name and contact info into the form and submit it to us as an email message

  • The "Sort" module is self-explanatory, and I chose to list them with most recent first

This feels far more complicated than it should be, and I'm sharing it here to both save someone else from having to figure it all out again on their own, and to hopefully get suggestions on how to simplify/improve it.

Although, speaking of improving it, I do have one idea for future development: the local Cemetery Department has spreadsheet online listing complete burial locations - it would be neat to mashup up that data, so the obituary is linked to the cemetery plot location.

That's down the road a bit, so in the meantime I just keep adding whatever new obituaries appear in the paper to the csv data file - I had planned to do that weekly, but lately there have been many weeks without any obituaries in the paper (see my previous post). Anyway, we'll see how this works - it only went live last week, but already patrons have been using it, and it certainly does save a lot of staff time.



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The Death of Newspaper Obituaries

   September 2nd, 2010 Brian Herzog

Newspaper MONEY SectionOne function of public libraries is to be a repository for community history. The extent to which a library can do this will vary, but at the very least, the library has holdings of the local newspaper, which patrons can use to look up obituaries of local residents.

But the reality of this is changing. As newspapers struggle to stay alive, they're exploring new revenue streams - our local paper recently started charging families to list obituaries, instead of providing that service for free. The paper is only published once a week for a town of 32,000 residents, but you can still see the effect below:

Year #/Obits
2000 444
2001 527
2002 523
2003 566
2004 556
2005 479
2006 500
2007 220
2008 215
2009 80
2010 26 (as of Aug.)

And of the 80 obituaries in 2009, only 12 were from June-December. With dramatically fewer obituaries appearing in the paper, the long-term research value of a library's newspaper holdings is diminished. There must be other factors at play too, but hopefully newspaper revenues will stabilize and this downward obituary trend will be reversed. Regardless, there will always at least be a gap for anyone doing genealogical research or just looking up a friend of family member.

And this doesn't seem to be just a local thing. A Slashdot post describes the same thing on a bigger scale. There's also a Boing Boing post that looks into Legacy.com, the company many newspapers are using to outsource obituary listings. The bottom line in both posts is that obituaries and death notices are turning into a cash cow business - and as it becomes more and more expensive to run an obituary, there are going to be fewer and fewer of them.

So, all of that is sad news - doubly so since it's out of the control of libraries (unless we start publishing family-written obituaries on our own websites for free). But at my library, we have been working to improve access to what we do have. Tune in next week for Part Two of this post, detailing how we created an online index to the obituaries in our newspaper microfilm records, to make then easier for patrons and staff to locate.



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